Farmers around Clarksdale, MS, must have thought it fishy eight years ago, when ponds were built on 700 acres of good soybean ground.

And when Nature's Catch, Inc. started stocking the ponds with striped bass, it got, well, fishier.

From 2,500 to 3,000 striped bass per acre now grow where there once was a soybean-rice rotation, says Michael Gafford, general manager.

"This heavy clay and mixed soil, which will hold water like a bathtub, is ideal for growing soybeans. But what we take away in soybean production we add in consumption," Gafford says.

"Our striped bass get their energy from corn and wheat in the ration, but 75% of their protein is derived from soybean meal - about 600 tons per year."

At the company's facility near Clarksdale, fish are stocked as fingerlings and harvested 12-18 months later at weights ranging from 1 to 3 lbs. After harvest, the unprocessed fish are transported to U.S. and Canadian markets.

"Our striped bass are also served daily at two local restaurants, the Ranchero in Clarksdale and Crawdads in Merigold, MS," says Gafford.

In summer, Arkansas hatcheries supply Nature's Catch with 4-5" fingerlings.

"The cold-blooded fish aggressively take food only in the six warmest months. During the fall and winter months, they suspend themselves in water columns, much the same as catfish or crappie, and consume very little feed."

Fish are harvested at all times of the year to fill broker orders. Currently, they're sold for about $10/lb, roughly twice what catfish bring. But striped bass are more expensive to raise.

"The catfish grower can sell all the fish he wants to produce - at a price," says Gafford. "Our market is much smaller. Our feed costs are about double those for catfish and the capital investments are much higher. Catfish growers will stock from 7,000 to 10,000 fish per acre. Our stocking rates are a third of that."

Striped bass are much more sensitive to low oxygen levels than catfish, Gafford says. The oxygen levels in each pond are checked every hour at night during the growing season.

"We do not have to watch it as closely during daylight, for the green algae, through photosynthesis, produce the needed oxygen. At night the respiration of the algae consumes the oxygen."

Each pond has stationary electric units that propel paddles to oxygenate the water.

"However, in case of emergency - low oxygen, etc. - we bring in portable diesel units with ptos to drive additional agitator units," says Gafford.